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Mental illness is a bit of a “sticky mess” that slows others down, says author Amy Simpson, and raises questions we’d rather not consider in the church.  Simpson knows – her mother suffers from schizophrenia.   “Scripture tells us to carry each other’s burdens,” she says. “It doesn’t say, ‘except when you have mental illness . . .”

Though Simpson lists several reasons why churches hesitate to get involved, a few stand out:

  •  Church members feel unqualified.
  •  Churches grow tired of the taxation of resources a chronically ill person requires.
  •  The mental health system is challenging and pastors cannot offer much direction.
  •  The causes of mental illness confuse many Christians, who then simplify the problem –unconfessed sin or demonic activity.
  •  Churches are unsure how to tolerate socially unacceptable behavior and chaos.

In her book, Troubled Minds, Simpson shares what she learned over the years while trying to help her mother.  She debunks the idea that the problem is too great for church ministry or for personal care.  From her years of experience she suggests:

Individually

  •  Read a book about mental disorders, to educate yourself.
  •  Prayerfully confront your fears and prejudices.
  •  Contact your local NAMI chapter about the program “In Our Own Voice: Living with Mental Illness.”
  •  Talk about mental illness and the theological questions that arise.
  •  Ask if you (or a mental health professional in your church) can host a Sunday school class on the topic of mental health, from a biblical point of view.
  •  Ask a family caring for a person with mental illness what you can do to help. Organize meal deliveries. Provide childcare. Pick up children from school. Mow the lawn. Do laundry. Visit. Continue reaching out, knowing that some people will recover and some will not.

Be the person who represents Christ’s tenacious and bold love, refusing to be driven away by what you don’t understand.

As a leader

  • Don’t wait for a crisis to make a referral. Educate yourself about community services and professionals so you will be prepared to offer help.
  • Ask the person who is ill if you can talk to his or her therapist or accompany him or her to a therapy session.
  • Set boundaries about acceptable behavior in the church setting. “Regardless of how they respond to social expectations,” says Simpson, “mentally ill people do need structure and boundaries to grow in independence, understanding and management of their illness.”

Make yourself obviously and consistently available, even if it’s not clear what else you can do to help.

As a Church

Simpson describes four churches which have reached out to people diagnosed with mental illnesses, showing that involvement is less daunting than we imagine.  Though the churches vary in the specifics of their ministries, they all offer prayer in small groups during the meetings and they all have seen God comfort, strengthen, and meet needs of those who attend.

Menlo Park Presbyterian – Menlo Park, California  The most important piece of advice they offer: Start simple. “We just showed up and God used us,” says Jane Pranaam.  Group guidelines about confidentiality and expectations are read before each meeting. (In twelve years of meetings, only one person caused concern resulting in the leaders asking him not to return.) At meetings, discussion and a time of worship and prayer follow a group meal. In Pranaam’s opinion, praying in small groups has been the cornerstone of this church’s ministry.

First Presbyterian Church – Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  “…this is the simplest and cheapest of all ministries,” says Bob Mills, “because all it takes is broken people who are willing to open up to God and allow him to work through them to heal them and then help them become healers.”  Counselors and psychiatrists help educate the church about mental health through Sunday school classes.  The church offers two support groups, one for people with diagnoses and one for their loved ones.  Facilitators are clear about the biblical nature of the meetings so that visitors will not be surprised– they discuss the orthodox view of God and they pray.

New Heights Church – Vancouver, Washington.  The leaders of this group said a ministry can begin when people acknowledge that “mental illness is common and treatable and that it strikes both Christians and non-Christians.”  Training of pastors and lay leaders helps the church become aware of illnesses and of what resources are available.  A psychologist speaks to the support group about mental health issues, and consults with the leaders. The church offers separate groups, for depression, anger, and chemical addictions, and to serve as a leader a person must have suffered from mental illness or have a close relative who has a diagnosis.

University Presbyterian Church – Seattle, Washington. “A little encouragement goes a long, long way,” says David Zucker, founder of the group.  The results he has seen could fill a dozen books, he says.  As for starting a support group, he believes clergy endorsement can make a big difference in how much people are willing to become involved.  Even without a lot of support, such a ministry can thrive.  Fortunately, the church hosts 8 week internships for people wanting to learn more and one church staff member works full-time on the ministry. Other churches, parachurch groups, mental health agencies, and social service organizations network with the group.

A support group does not have to offer therapy…but that doesn’t mean it can’t be therapeutic. 

A church cannot offer solutions to every problem, nor can any one person “fix” another person’s life.  God does not ask us to. He does ask that we allow Jesus to work through us, often in small ways, and watch Him redeem.

Reference: All quotes taken from Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson, InterVarsity Press, 2013.

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